New York’s climate law requires that all GHGs are measured based on what comes out of the tailpipes of its cars, buses, and trucks, from the smokestacks of power plants and buildings’ power and heating systems. At first, this seems simple. But these emissions are just a narrow slice of all economy-wide GHG emissions from the state’s fuel and energy uses, waste management practices and other activities.
What about the GHGs emitted when a fuel is produced? Or when it’s transported to the site of use? The US Environmental Protection Agency and most states with ambitious climate laws use a system that looks at all associated emissions. This system, the gold standard developed by the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, is called “full lifecycle carbon accounting.”
Lifecycle accounting adds up all the GHGs a fuel or energy source emits, from mining/extraction and production to transport and end-use. As we said in the Energy Vision Op Ed recently published in the Albany Times Union, “Think of point source emissions as one snapshot, and lifecycle emissions as the whole movie of climate impact. The movie is what matters to the planet.”
Two examples show the importance of lifecycle accounting. First, consider emissions from natural gas vehicles running on fossil natural gas vs. renewable natural gas made from organic wastes. The two chemically-similar fuels generate almost identical tailpipe emissions – that’s the snapshot. Looking at emissions over their lifecycle – that’s the movie.
The fossil gas lifecycle includes extracting underground methane formed eons ago and releasing it into our environment, adding to the earth’s carbon burden. Producing RNG, by contrast, captures existing methane biogases generated above ground by rotting organic waste. It prevents their release into the atmosphere. Lifecycle accounting reveals that we should minimize the use of fossil gas but maximize the use of RNG.
The second example is electrification. Many NYS environmentalists fought successfully for the state’s overall climate goal to be “electrify everything.” Electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions. So they are called zero-emission vehicles. But what’s the lifecycle accounting story?
Battery electric vehicles aren’t truly zero emission. While they have no tailpipe emissions: the increased weight of batteries needed for heavy-duty electric vehicles can lead to increased particulate emissions from brake and tire wear; the mining of metals and minerals needed for batteries has led to air and water pollution and dangerous labor conditions; and the majority of our electricity in the US is still made by burning fossil fuels.
We know that cars run successfully on battery technology and so do new homes. But lifecycle accounting suggests significant GHG and pollution issues must be addressed. And some sectors like heavy-duty trucks would find switching to RNG cheaper, easier, and with less lifecycle GHG emissions than switching to full electrification.
For NY State, lifecycle accounting is also vital since the federal Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) uses it to select which carbon-cutting projects are eligible for funding. New York needs IRA-funded projects and the tens of thousands of jobs they might create here, which will be backed by prevailing wage and apprenticeship requirements. That’s why labor unions support shifting to lifecycle accounting as well.
To shape a sustainable energy future, NY and other states need to account for the full lifecycle impacts of what they do. And switching to lifecycle accounting this year would ensure a stronger climate leadership role for New York.